Why Happiness Is a Muscle You Have to Work Out Daily

Train your brain and your breath to find happiness in the ups and downs of life.

They say life throws you a pebble or a rock—or you run into a brick wall.

About 25 years ago I had a lump on my neck. When I went in for my yearly checkup, it came back as cancer. We weren’t sure what type it was. It was either melanoma, which had metastasized from a previous bout with cancer, or Hodgkin lymphoma, which is very, very curable. But for two weeks I didn’t know.

And surprisingly, I did my best living in those two weeks when I was facing that brick wall, because I had nothing to lose. Was I going to spend that time worrying whether I was a size 6, what my last meal was, or wondering whether my last workout was the perfect workout? Heck no. The two things that came to mind was, “I haven’t been around long enough to love in the way that I know I want to love,” and, “I’m not done yet.”

Luckily, the diagnosis came back as Hodgkin lymphoma, and it was very curable. I lost my hair and I had put on 20 pounds from the steroids, but it was when I was at my most imperfect that I was bold. I was fearless.

Move three things

These days, I believe there are three things that are so important for us to be moving: our body, our breath and our thoughts. If those get stagnant, we will never be at our most powerful.

The link between our thoughts and our body is our breath. The link that moves us out of the past, away from the future and into the present is our breath. During our day, on average we take 18,000 breaths in and breaths out. Before every inhale and after every exhale we get a choice: Do I choose to listen to my negative thoughts, or focus on everything that I already am, even if there is still work I want to do?

It’s by paying attention to the simplest thing—our breath—that we can find happiness. When we become being aware of our breath, choose the positive thoughts and decide to move our body, we can create a more joyful life that allows us to flourish and thrive.

Train for the intervals

Now, happiness means different things to all of us. But happiness is not steady-state training, it is interval training for life. Happiness is a muscle, and like any muscle—you use it or you lose it. For me, happiness means being at my most powerful, and I feel my most powerful when I am at peace and living in the present.

Does that mean life is always going to be perfect? No. But when my happiness muscle is strong, viable and resilient, it allows me to enjoy the sweet moments. And in the not-so-good moments, it allows me to say, “This too shall pass.”

Happiness is going to ebb and flow along with the ups and downs of life. When you’ve lost a loved one, when you’ve moved across the country for a relationship that blows up, when you’ve lost the job of your dreams, when the marriage didn’t work out—that’s when you need the strength of that interval training. You can’t dodge grief. You can’t dodge a challenge. You can’t dodge failure and you can’t bypass those moments to get to the other side, but you can choose how you face those moments.

And so to help us make the most of this journey called life, we strengthen our happiness muscle. We do it by training our resilience, courage, determination, grit and gratitude.

Here are three ways to strengthen your happiness muscle.

Just breathe

The breath brings us to the present. Just follow your breath for a minute, in and out of your body. This gives you an action step that moves you into the present. Don’t worry about how you are breathing—just pay attention to your breath.

I invite you to do this once on the hour. That’s something most of us can do in our very busy lives. This simple step moves us back into the present, and that’s our power zone.

Be the change

Most of us have a J-O-B. So how do you apply the notion of happiness to your job? You get to be the change. You have the choice to find the extraordinary in your seemingly ordinary days at work.

When it comes to work, we often see everything that’s not working. We can create a ripple effect just by showing up with a different energy. Energy is contagious. Bring into the room what you want to find. Be the change this next week. Seek the good in your co-workers, talk to someone new at lunch, be the benefit-seeker instead of a fault-finder.

You can be the catalyst for change. You can start the ripple just by changing your thoughts, changing your expectations and changing your focus. What would happen if you showed up to work this week, to your J-O-B, and looked for everything that was working well?

Rewrite your script

Try this activity: For 15 minutes, rewrite your job description as if it was your calling. Write it down as if it was your dream job, everything that you want. And write it down as if it’s already happening.

Then, I’m going to ask you do one more thing. I know you’re busy, but do this anyway: Next week, imagine your life three years from now as if everything had gone well at work. You’ve got your dream team around you. It’s the job of your dreams. What would that look like? What position would you be in? What would you be doing? Who would you be surrounding yourself with?

Write it down in present tense, because that’s going to remind you of what’s important in your life, as well as your goals and dreams.

When you take a mindset that focuses on what is working and on pulling out the best in you, then you help pull out the best in others. Bring a solution, and then talk about what could be strengthened. Together, one choice at a time, one conversation at a time, one hug at a time, we get to change the world.

Photo credits: DragonImages, Thinkstock; mimagephotos, Jacob Lund, michaelheim, baranq, bst2012, Adobe Stock